The Beatles: Eight Days a Week

September 16, 2016
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (2016)
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (2016)

Apart from a one-off appearance on the rooftop of their London offices in 1969, the Beatles played their last gig at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, on 29 August 1966. It was a shambles, coming at the end of a tour that had destroyed the group’s appetite for live performance. They had become tired of the road; tired of the constant security and paranoia; tired of playing to audiences that could barely hear a note relayed through abysmal sound systems. They had gone from obscurity to global celebrity in only four years, and they were thoroughly sick of it.

How did it get so crazy so quickly? Ron Howard’s absorbing documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years, provides a potted history of a period when the world discovered the power of Youth through hysterical crowd scenes that would have shocked Cecil B. DeMille.

At every press conference someone would ask: “What happens when the bubble bursts?” The Beatles laughed off the question, but by 1966 they were longing for that moment. When John Lennon wrote the lyrics for Help! it was a cri de coeur.

From 1962-66 the band had criss-crossed Britain and the United States, as well as playing gigs in Germany, France, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines. As John, Paul, George and Ringo’s fame continued to skyrocket the American crowds got bigger and more unruly. The venues became so large they couldn’t hear themselves play. In a country where the temper of the times was being defined by assassinations and race riots, the police presence was intense and all-pervasive.

The Beatles had refused to play to segregated audiences, forcing racial integration for the first time in cities such as Jacksonville. When John Lennon joked that the group was bigger than Jesus Christ it set off a wave of hatred in the southern states that saw massive bonfires of records and memorabilia.

The film could be subtitled: ‘On the Mass Psychology of Crowds’, or perhaps ‘…Crowds of Teenage Girls.’ At every concert there are amazing shots of girls in tears; girls rattling the mesh of protective fences like lunatics trying to escape their cells; girls screaming, swooning, fighting with police; girls being carried off on stretchers. It’s a hormonal supernova: one seething mass of sexual desire radiating towards the four lads on stage. It’s funny at first, but gradually becomes alarming. These are the kind of crowds in which people get trampled to death.

The Beatles seemed slightly bewildered by their sudden adulation, but had perfected a line in comic banter that carried them through one interview after another.

The four working-class boys from Liverpool come across as sharper, more quick-witted than any popstars you’ve ever seen. They were so close-knit in those days they could describe themselves as one body with four heads. It was an impression that gained ground after manager, Brian Epstein, got them out of jeans and leather jackets, and into smart, identical suits.

As a documentarian, Howard is inclined to celebrate his subjects rather than look for downsides. Biographers such as Philip Norman and Hunter Davies were less willing to accentuate the positives and eliminate the nasty bits. If Alex Gibney had directed this movie the Beatles would have been geniuses for the first half, and monsters for the second – although Ringo’s charm would have survived any critique.

The film progresses along a simple time-line, from year to year and album to album. Each segment is so action-packed the biggest problem must have been editing the footage down to an acceptable length.

Howard punctuates the sequence with interviews – not just with the Beatles, but with figures such as Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, who recall their own teenage Beatlemania. There is an emphasis on the racial politics of the era, with Goldberg remembering that for the first time it didn’t seem to matter that her idols were white and she was black.

Composer Howard Goodall adds the imposing statistics, comparing the Lennon-McCartney song-writing duo with Schubert, in terms of the sheer quantity of successful songs they produced. This needs to be put against footage of a young Paul McCartney being quizzed about the Beatles as a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. “This isn’t culture,” he replies. “It’s just a laugh.”

Today that’s not so easy to say. The Beatles were one of the major cultural forces of the twentieth century. They pioneered the stadium tour that has become a standard part of the rock industry, and built up a fan base that crossed all social and racial divides.

The music itself, which began as simple American-style R & B, would evolve into something far more complex in their 1965 album, Rubber Soul. It was a sign that the band were turning towards the studio and away from the stage. Elvis Costello speaks as a fan who found Rubber Soul incomprehensible at first hearing, but within three weeks felt he couldn’t live without it. When the group had given up touring they celebrated with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. It was a new look, a new sound, and the face of popular music had changed forever.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Mark Monroe
Starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, George Martin
UK/USA, rated M, 137 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17th September, 2016.